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Authors: Richard; Clive; Kennedy King

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BOOK: The 22 Letters
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They did so, and reset the sail, and as morning came they continued on the same course. Sure enough about midday the joyful cry went up “Land ho!” And everybody was jubilant—except the Chaldean.

The crew were chattering excitedly, and the old hands were wagering as to what part of the land it was. When they were near enough for one of them to recognize it as the island of Kasos, off the eastern point of Crete, they were amazed. In just over two days they had completed a voyage that usually took five or six, coasting from point to point. They looked with admiration at their skillful captain, and with awe at their strange navigator.

But the Chaldean took Nun aside. “Master,” he said, “this is your ship and I am a mere passenger—”

“How can you say that?” Nun exclaimed. “You have taught me secrets no other sailor knows. My ship is yours.”

“You feel I have saved you a day or two's weary coasting?”

“Indeed,” said Nun. “I don't know where I'd be without you. Still up some mainland creek perhaps. How can I repay you?”

“I beg only two of the days I may have saved you on this voyage,” said the sage.

“They are yours,” said Nun, puzzled. “But what do you mean?”

“Your business is with Knossos, I know,” said the Chaldean. “And so I had thought was mine. But now the stars tell me differently. You know the islands well, Captain?”

“I can tell where I am among the islands by the taste of the water over the side,” Nun bragged.

“Is there an isle about a day's sail, from dawn to sunset, due north of Knossos?”

“That would be Thira,” Nun replied.

“Then if you can spare me two days from your enterprise, I shall be grateful if we might go there first,” said the Chaldean. “I do not know what we shall find, but, whatever it is, I believe it is of grave enough importance to affect you and all who live in the known world. So it is not only for myself that I ask it.”

“But don't your stars tell you more precisely?” asked Nun. “They brought us to Kasos at the time you predicted. Why are you doubtful about the other thing?”

“It is of a different kind,” replied the sage. “This knowledge of disaster is within me. The stars merely help me find the time and place. But I can say no more. May we go?”

“You have my promise,” said Nun.

So once again there were looks of outrage on the faces of the crew as, instead of heading west along the northern coast of Crete, they continued on their northwesterly course after clearing Kasos. Here there were lesser islands strewn over the sunlit water to guide them by day, but they would be treacherous hazards by night. So before sunset they found a little bay in one of them and made fast for the night. Nun was glad enough to sleep the night through without responsibilities, while some of the crew stretched their legs on the barren islet, grousing freely at being deprived of the joys of port. But the Chaldean stayed awake all night and communed with the stars.

Next day it was only a short run to Thira, and they neared it in the early afternoon. Indeed, they were aware of it a long way off, because of a thin plume of smoke that seemed to be coming from the pointed top of the island.

Nun and the Chaldean gazed at it from the poop. “You have landed there before, Master?” asked the passenger.

“No,” replied Nun. “I have seen its burning mountain times enough before now. But I've never had business there—and who'd go to such a place for pleasure? Though they say …”

“Yes?” the Chaldean prompted.

“I don't know,” said Nun. “It has a certain reputation …”

“Indeed? What kind of people live there?”

“One hears strange stories, that's all,” said Nun. “I've never taken much note of them, and I can't even remember what they're about. But we shall see for ourselves now, shan't we?”

Suddenly, as they gazed, the wind failed them, for the first time since they left Gebal. The sail flopped heavily against the mast as the ship rolled in the slight swell, not a breath of cooling air touched their bodies, and the distant shore of the island shimmered in the afternoon heat haze. At Nun's command the sweating sailors furled and secured the sail, got out the heavy oars and sat down on the benches. The boatswain gave the beat, and the ship forged sluggishly ahead as Nun steered a course round the steep shore of the island, looking for the harbor.

The island stood like a pile of white bones in the blue sea, reflecting the heat and the glare of the sun. Here and there were patches of silver-green olive trees, and dried-up wisps of vegetation that might be vines, and they had to look hard to make out the scattered houses built of the same white rock as the island itself. From whichever way they looked at it, as they slowly coasted around, it looked the same—an almost perfect cone, with a blackened top and the sinister plume of smoke now rising straight into the heavens. But of life there seemed to be no sign.

They had made a complete circuit of the isle, and the sun had dropped down the sky very little in that time, before Nun decided that a little jetty and a cluster of buildings on the eastern side was the main harbor. He turned the ship in her tracks and headed back to it.

“Not much of a haven,” Nun murmured as they approached the apparently deserted quays. “But it will do in this calm.”

Even when they were near enough to see rows of sealed wine jars standing waiting in the shade of a rough warehouse, there seemed to be no human guardians of the place. The only sound was the regular plop, groan, and splash of the oars, beating now at a dead slow pace, just enough to keep the stem gently cutting through the water. Nun raised his hand to halt the rowers, and there was only the gurgle of water along the keel and the drips falling from the raised oars. Nun looked at the Chaldean, and the oarsmen looked at each other, and no one seemed capable of breaking the silence—until the boatswain startled them all by letting out a sudden roar:

“Ashore there! Are you all dead, or drunk?”

One of a stack of empty jars seemed to come to life and a human figure got to its feet, grasping clumsily at a spear and rubbing the sleep of his siesta out of his eyes. The harbor guard stared stupidly at the approaching ship, and then shouted something over his shoulder. Other figures appeared from patches of shade and moved confusedly here and there; but though the boatswain, using various shouts and signs, tried to get them to indicate where they should come alongside, there were no helpful gestures in reply. So Nun ordered the oars to be drawn in, manned the steering oar, and there was just enough way on the ship to take her smoothly alongside the jetty, where two of the crew jumped ashore and made fast.

The harbor-guard had now got itself into some sort of military order and Nun noted that their helmets and armor were of Cretan pattern, though the bronze lacked the well-known Cretan spit-and-polish. Yet still there was no offer of help: they stood stolidly across the end of the jetty as if barring the way to the land. Then, just as Nun himself jumped from the poop on to the jetty, the soldier standing nearest to him lifted his hand in the gesture of drinking from a jar and said one word: “Water?”

“So you do speak a known tongue!” Nun remarked. “Thank you, the supplies in
our
water jars
are
low.”

The soldier looked into the hold of the ship, looked again at Nun, and repeated with a query in his voice: “Water?”

“Yes, we need it badly,” said Nun. “Where can we get some?”

The soldier looked blankly at Nun, seemed to search in his mind for words in the language that was obviously difficult for him, and at last found four words: “You give me water?”


I
give
you
water?” Nun repeated. “What do you mean? We have come a long way, been at sea for days. How can we give you water? Have you none on your island?” He looked closely at the soldier: certainly it didn't look as if he had washed recently. The soldier shrugged and looked away.

“They don't seem very glad to see us,” said Nun to the Chaldean who was standing patiently on the poop. “Come ashore, sir, and we'll see if we can get some sense out of this island.”

He held out his hand to the Chaldean to help him over the ship's side. The soldiers looked with some show of curiosity at the outlandish dress of the stranger as he stood poised on the wooden bulwark. And as the Chaldean's foot touched the stone of the harbor a hollow rumble seemed to come from the very core of the island and the ground trembled until the stacked wine jars rang one against the other. Nun felt a sudden chill of terror all over his body in the hot afternoon. The sailors who stood by the ropes fell weakly to their knees muttering incantations, the Chaldean stood in thought with a stern set face, and the island soldiers behaved as if nothing had happened.

“Our welcome has been spoken,” said the Chaldean at last.

At that point there was the sound of a disturbance at the landward end of the jetty: voices and footsteps seemed to be approaching. Nun looked round, thinking perhaps it was someone in authority, and wondering weakly what was the next surprise this strange island would produce.

The surprise was a little middle-aged man in a rather grubby civilian robe, chattering to his military escort in the Cretan tongue and helping his short steps through the dust of the harbor with a walking stick. The soldiers stood out of his way without much show of respect, and he came up to where Nun and the Chaldean were standing. Taking one look at Nun, the ship, and the sailors, he switched immediately into the Phoenician language without pausing for breath.

“Have you been waiting? So sorry! You must excuse us,” he burst out. “So unexpected so early in the afternoon—you know our wretched siesta habit. Or perhaps you don't.” Then turning to glance at the ship: “From the Phoenician coast, aren't you? I've seen your ships in Crete, of course, although you don't often call at Thira. But you're very welcome. In fact, you're here not at all too soon. Things are bad.” He eyed the cargo of cedar beams under its hide covering with some puzzlement: “How much have you got?”

Nun hesitated. “I—I'm afraid we're not here to trade,” he said.

“Trade?” repeated the little man sharply. “Oh, of course, no haggling. We pay the price. But how much water have you? Where's it stowed?”

“Water?” said Nun. “We've about enough for our crew for half a day, if they're rowing. I'd be obliged if you'd tell me where we can replenish.”

The man stopped talking for a good half minute and looked amazed at Nun. “You're
asking
us for water? But they know the situation perfectly well in Amnisos. All ships calling from there are obliged to bring us water.” His face attempted a smile. “You are pulling my leg, Captain. But it is not kind of you.”

Nun was beginning to understand. “I'm very sorry; sir,” he said. “A misunderstanding. We're not from Amnisos. We sailed straight from Gebal without touching land. If we'd known there was a water shortage here, of course we would have brought some. But all we have, I'm afraid, is a cargo of timber for Knossos. We called here for …” Well, what had they called for? This worried little man did not seem to have much to do with the Chaldean's grand calculations and predictions. “Just a social visit,” Nun concluded feebly.

The little man's face, which had fallen into a picture of disappointment and dejection, pulled itself together. He shrugged. “Oh!” he said, several times, in several different tones of voice. “No water. I had thought perhaps even a bath …” Then he put on a smile. “You must excuse me again. A social visit you said? One forgets on this wretched island. This really is kind. You mean you've really come to see me? You know it's just as good as water to a thirsty man—very nearly—to have visitors. You see nobody comes now, what with one thing and another …” He interrupted his thoughts: “How rude of me. Here I am talking business and I haven't even introduced myself. Ekerawon's my name. How nice of you to come!”

“I'm Nun, from Gebal,” said Nun. “And my friend here from Babylon—”

“From Babylon!” interrupted Ekerawon, his face lighting up. “But you mock me, Nun of Gebal, when you say you have come all that way to visit us. You mock our wretched island. What could possibly draw you here?”

And at that moment there came again the hollow rumble from the core of the island, and the stones of the harbor trembled under their feet and the wine jars chimed again. And the Chaldean saluted Ekerawon solemnly and said: “The stars have indeed led me to you, all the way from Babylon, O Ekerawon. And I am sure that your island has something to tell me.”

To Nun's surprise Ekerawon burst into happy laughter. “Oh,
that
!” he exclaimed, waving his hand vaguely toward the bowels of the mountain. “Yes, of course, my dear sir, we have signs and wonders here, worthy even of Babylon's interest. But it's a long story if you don't know it. Gentlemen, you will be my guests for the evening! Accept my poor hospitality, and my little knowledge is at your disposal. Come!”

But Nun hesitated. “We must not impose on you,” he protested. “We have brought nothing. Are you sure—”

Ekerawon laughed again. “My house is humble, sir, but we are not paupers. We have food, we have friends, we have music. And if there is no water—who cares, so long as there is wine?”

The evening's entertainment was wearing on. Darkness had fallen long ago. Sprawled on cushions in Ekerawon's courtyard, stupefied by the rich dark island wine which his host kept pouring into his cup, but which was doing nothing to quench his thirst, conscious of all the hours of sleep he had missed at sea, Nun was doing his best to keep his eyes open. The Chaldean was sitting in impassive dignity, saying and eating little. A large fat friend of the host, Philaios by name, was gorging himself on stuffed vine leaves and little fish in hot sauce. Four or five slaves kept beating out an insistent, rhythmic tune on drums, cymbals, a pipe, and some kind of stringed instrument. A thin girl with long dark hair, fierce eyes, and few clothes was twisting her body in a dance that seemed to move everything but her feet. And Ekerawon kept on talking.

BOOK: The 22 Letters
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